Osip Mandelstam and the perils of writing poetry under Stalin

One of the most revealing photographs of Osip Mandelstam still in existence is a mugshot taken in the Lubyanka, on the occasion of his first arrest, in 1934. In the side-on view, it’s of little significance: he looks like any balding 1930s labourer from almost anywhere. Face on, though, arms folded and lips firmly pursed, he presents another proposition entirely. In this shot Mandelstam looks directly into the lens as though he is staring down the photographer. His eyes conceal any trace of the fear that must have been coursing through him; rather, his expression is the very manifestation of contempt. It is the face of a man who has never and will never let anyone, including himself, off the hook.

By the time of this first arrest, Mandelstam had already lived for several years with the knowledge that the long-term aim of the Soviet state machine was to take his life – the method and the timescale were all that remained to be revealed. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” he is quoted as ­saying. “It gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

The truth of this statement had been borne out long before Russia arrived at the great Yezhov terror of 1937-38, which was to provide Mandelstam and so many others with their end. Anna Akhmatova’s former husband, the poet and founder of the Acmeist movement, Nikolai Gumilev, had been arrested by the Cheka, the secret police, framed for participating in a fictitious tsarist plot and summarily executed in 1921. Vladimir Mayakovsky, initially a vigorous supporter of Soviet ideology and evangelical in his profound personal admiration for Lenin, had fallen from grace and been driven, by a series of public accusations, to shoot himself in 1930. Later, in 1941, after years of torment at the hands of the state, including the execution of her husband and the imprisonment of her daughter, Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself.

Nadezhda Mandelstam – the poet’s wife and invaluable support throughout his, and their, many years of persecution and exile – wrote in her powerful memoir of both the poet and the era, Hope Against Hope, about the many instances when, confronted with the desperation of their situation, they had asked each other if this was the moment when they, too, could no longer bear to go forward. The final occasion was to be the last night they spent in their Moscow apartment before being banished, without means of providing for themselves, to a succession of rural towns situated beyond a hundred-kilometre perimeter of all major cities. She awoke to find Mandelstam standing at the open window. “Isn’t it time?” he said. “Let’s do it while we’re still together.” “Not yet,” she replied. Mandelstam didn’t argue but she later reflected, “If we had been able to foresee all the alternatives, we would not have missed that last chance of a ‘normal’ death offered by the open window of our apartment in Furmanov Street.” Opting, in that moment, for a little more life changed nothing and Mandelstam soon found himself being moved inexorably towards Stalin’s endgame in the camps.

What has now been established – with as reasonable a degree of certainty as possible for a time in which wives, upon receiving official notification of their husband’s sentence to hard labour in the Gulag, were often casually informed that they were now free to remarry – is that in the Vtoraya Rechka transit camp, en route to Vladivostok in December 1938, Mandelstam, frail and worn out from his many years of oppression, malnourished, severely mentally unstable and without adequate protective clothing for the ferocious Siberian winter, succumbed possibly to typhus, probably to a heart attack. Nadezhda Mandelstam first discovered his death when a package of warm clothing she had sent was returned unopened, bearing the stark message: “The addressee is dead.”

Over the years, she patiently tracked down whom she could of the very few of his fellow inmates who had managed to survive their ordeal, both physically and mentally. Their often highly dissociated memories were her only source of information about the last days of the man whose life and work she had endured so much to save.

It was a strange and cruel death for a man whose early life had somehow evaded the usual traps laid for the children of successful Jewish merchants in pre-revolutionary Russia. Born in Warsaw in 1891 but raised in the virulently anti-Semitic turn-of-the-century St Petersburg, Mandelstam still succeeded in gaining admission to the city’s prestigious Tenishev School and, despite his lacklustre performance there, went on to study abroad both at the Sorbonne in France and the University of Heidelberg in Germany, although without completing his studies at either.

On his return to Russia, and after the requisite conversion to Lutheranism, he was accepted into St Petersburg ­University. The publication in 1913 of his first collection of poetry, Stone, established his reputation as one – alongside Akhmatova (who became both his and his wife’s truest friend and most loyal ally in the years of anguish ahead) – of the pre-eminent poets of his generation. His vigorous rejection of the prevailing dominance of the symbolists nailed Mandelstam’s Acmeist colours to the mast early on. (Acmeism was a literary movement advocating a poetry that directly reflected human experience in the physical world, and of which Mandelstam was the foremost exponent.)

In many ways, this allegiance dedicated him to the set of personal and artistic principles that eventually led his continued existence to be untenable for the Soviet state. It is not purely a bitter coincidence that in his 1913 essay “The Morning of Acmeism” he asserts, “To exist is the artist’s greatest pride. He desires no other paradise than existence . . .” He goes on to describe Acmeism’s simple humanism and individualism – as opposed to the exclusivist mysticism of what had gone before – thus: “There is no equality, there is no competition, there is only the complicity of all who conspire against emptiness and non-existence. Love the existence of the thing itself and your own existence more than yourself: that is Acme­ism’s highest commandment.” Towards the end of his life he was also reported, by Akhmatova, to have described Acmeism as “a homesickness for world culture”.

It seems unlikely that a man who had devoted his life’s work to such ideals could ever have learned just to rub along with the all-devouring beast whose ideological agenda could brook no dissent.

In line with most of the Russian intelligentsia, Mandelstam had been initially supportive of the ideals of the Bolsheviks and sought to embrace the spirit of revolution. He soon became disillusioned, however, by the increasing demands of the regime for poetry to serve the political and collective, rather than the personal and the human. The publication in 1922 of his collection Tristia, preoccupied as it was with love and the sanctity of the Word (a reverential phrase for the composition of poetry current at the time), only contributed to the antagonism between Mandelstam and his more pragmatic peers. Over time, the internal and ­external pressures created by the situation led him to lapse into a “poetic silence” similar to that experienced by Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak.

In 1928, Mandelstam published a book of collected poems, a volume of critical essays and The Egyptian Stamp, one of the few examples of Russian surrealist fiction. This was to be the pinnacle of his publishing career and literary reputation. However, his continued refusal to compromise the integrity of his work in service of the propaganda machine was energetically scapegoated by those with the foresight to realise that feeding their poetry into the meat-grinder would ultimately prove preferable to feeding themselves into it. Further publication of Mandelstam’s poetry started to become problematic and the poet found himself falling back on translation, editing, memoir and children’s books in order to make ends meet.

When a printer’s error in an edition of Charles de Coster’s German fable The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak credited Mandelstam as “translator” rather than “editor”, a carefully constructed uproar ensued, in which he was viciously denounced in the press. He vehemently denied the accusation of attempting to grab undue credit but the state-sponsored campaign was well organised and so the doors to any further opportunities for publication were now, conveniently, shut. It was only the direct intervention of the poetry-loving Nikolai Bukharin, Stalin’s ally in the defeat of Trotsky, that brought the matter to a close.

The Mandelstams were despatched to Armenia under the pretext of reporting on collectivisation but, in reality, Bukharin was removing them from the dangerous level of state scrutiny that the scandal had subjected them to. The ploy worked and Mandelstam’s life was saved but the Armenian episode also became an important turning point in his artistic life. The sense of closeness to Dante that he experienced there – because of the connection between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, according to his widow – allowed him to reconnect to his poetic voice and write his personal manifesto/memoir Fourth Prose, thus bringing to an end his self-described “deaf-mute” period. Mandelstam was never to see his later poetry in print, and although a heavily censored version of his Journey to Armenia appeared in 1933, it proved to be the last significant publication of his life.

On his return to Moscow Mandelstam found the attitude towards his work had not improved and the situation in the country had deteriorated. People were either living in abject terror of being picked up in the by now nightly rounds of arrests or were the informers responsible for bringing the slightest idiosyncrasies of their neighbours to the attention of the authorities. As the mantra of the secret police – “Give us a man and we’ll make a case” – was well known, normal communication between people ceased to be possible. No one knew to whom they spoke or what construction would be placed upon even the most innocuous conversation. Any form of social interaction as previously understood was now impossible.

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